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Saving Ourselves

I recently had the pleasure of attending a life-changing brunch in Atlanta, GA. It was a Mental Wellness brunch titled “Saving Us” hosted by Black Girls Smile, Inc. BGS is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting positive mental health for young African American females. I call this brunch life changing due to the fact that I left there with a different outlook on my own mental health and the mental health of the African American community as a whole. Also, I left thinking “I wish everyone I know could have experienced that with me… Every bit of information was something we all NEED to hear and know.”

From the impressive panel of professional mental health experts to the perfect execution of a lovely Southern brunch, Black Girls Smile, Inc. left such a lasting impression on all of us in attendance. Seriously, all of the guests could not stop praising the founder, Lauren Carson, and the BGS team for putting on such a beautiful event. Well done! You all shined such a beautiful light on such an important and serious issue.

Lauren and I were able to go further into mental health, her story, and what role we all can play in this cause. Read more below.

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When did you start Black Girls Smile?

I officially founded and incorporated Black Girls Smile Inc. in May, 2012, and we received our 501c3 status in September, 2014. However, prior to filing incorporation papers in 2012 I was developing the organization idea for about 2-3 years prior stemming directly from my own mental health journey as a young African American female.

What was your inspiration?

It may sounds selfish, but me, or more so girls like me. When I was first diagnosed with depression, it was literally like someone telling you have a foreign disease you have never heard of and that there is no cure and no treatment and no research. That is what it felt like. As I got older, wiser, and healthier I looked back on the experiences I had and said “it doesn’t have to be like that” for me or for any other young African American girl. Through BGS we work to ensure all, especially young African American girls receive the resources, support and education to lead mentally healthy lives.

In your opinion, what is the biggest hurdle black women face in dealing with mental illness?

Feeling comfortable taking off the “mask” we wear. 1. We ignore that we deserve and should lead happy, healthy lives and that hinges largely in my opinion on mental wellness. 2. We hide. We hide our feelings, our pain, our struggles and they fester. We aren’t our best selves to the world and most importantly to ourselves. We as a people and more specifically African Americans have to stop “just making it” and not seeking adequate assistance when we are experiencing mental health difficulties, because it can affect every aspect of your life; physical health, spiritual health, relationships, career and decision making. We cannot continue operating in this space of “I’m good” “doing well” in public and having everything going wrong behind the scenes, it’s not sustainable and it’s not healthy.

I loved when one of the doctors spoke about how we need mental checkups just like we get physical checkups. What do you think we all could do to stay on top of our mental health?

Get to know you! It sounds cliché and abstract but you have to know you. What works, what doesn’t, what upsets you, what makes you happy, overall understanding your emotions, feelings and mental health? And constantly evaluating this leads one to work toward replicating the good and eliminating the bad. And as important is speaking to someone about your feelings your emotions and your moods. I advocate for a mental health professionals, because just like you don’t see your dentist or primary care doctor only when something is wrong you can also see a mental health professional when absolutely everything is going right!

Explain the concept of “invisible walls” surrounding mental illness.

This concept to me is multi-facets; there are multiple barriers that keeping people with mental illness from either getting help or opening up and also from their loves ones really embracing that their friend or family member is struggling:

  1. This perception still in the African American community that anything mental is considered a weakness or “crazy”. We have to change the rhetoric and clean up the meaning and use of words to describe mental health and mental illness because words have power.
  1. Racially sensitive treatment. Yes, very few mental health professional look like us but that cannot and should not continue to keep us from seeking help when necessary. We also need to expose and encourage our young brilliant and talented mind to the rewards and beauty of careers in Psychology and Mental Health.
  1. Insurance. Obamacare not only revolutionized the US general healthcare system but it also has multiple clauses specifying mental health treatment now are and have to be included in coverage. Take advantage of this! Previously many African Americans did not have health insurance and if they did it did not include mental health coverage. Now that we have access to coverage we have to take advantage of it, and seek the treatment that many need to get on track to lead mentally healthy lives.

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If someone is struggling with their mental health, what should they do in order to seek help?

If in any way you think you may harm yourself or someone else or someone you know may harm themselves or someone else call 911 first! Also, specifically in GA there is the Georgia Crisis and Access Line at 800-715-4225 that can assist during a mental health crisis. I would urge anyone to not ignore any threats, ominous talk, and strange behaviors.

If the situation is not emergent reach out to your insurance and find out more about your mental health coverage and providers in and out of network. There are also many sites that will help you find mental health professionals in and out of your network.

Lastly BGS maintains a list of African American mental health providers; you can contact us at Contact@blackgirlssmile.orgto have this list sent to you directly.

And what about someone who knows a person dealing with mental illness, what advice would you give them?

  1.     Do not ignore signs
  1.     Be educated, you cannot help someone if you do not know any mental health, illness and wellness yourself.
  1.     Be encouraging without being dismissive.
  2.     Be prepared if they are not ready and/or do not want to seek help. If this individual is over 18 can request a 72 hour in-patient psychiatric hold if you believe this individual is exhibiting signs that they may harm themselves or other.
  1.     Put your mask on first. In all honesty supporting someone with mental health difficulties in any regard can be taxing, and you need to ensure you are mentally healthy prior to helping someone else.

Finally, what can people do to support the Black Girls Smile movement?

Visit our website to find out more about our programs, initiative and events. Follow and like us on all social media @blackgirlssmile for motivational quotes, mental wellness tips, and BGS updates. On our website have a comprehensive list of organization, sites and links with helpful information, maintain an active blog on up to date news, research and mental health developments. Also we are always looking for feedback, suggestions and volunteers and we continue to further our mission to ensure that all lead mentally healthy lives…and smile!

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Paige Fenn

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